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But this tale gets a vibrant makeover in writer-director Steve Antin’s toe-tapping, flamboyantly skin-deep musical Burlesque. Yes, it’s only skin-deep, and so what? Perhaps because they’re so rarely attempted these days, recent musicals have felt a self-conscious need to dig for significance, whether it be artistic malaise (Nine), racial inequality (Dreamgirls) or media manipulation (Chicago). Burlesque stays aggressively on the surface, reveling in its artificiality.
It was a risky bet by this first-time feature director to cast songstress Christina Aguilera, a singer who had never acted in a film. The stroke of genius here is to pair her with pop-music icon Cher. Although Aguilera is in nearly every scene and Cher appears irregularly, they nicely balance each other as they play single-minded characters passionate about their work as cabaret performers.
One is at wits’ end about a possibly dying art and the other too fresh and enthused to notice. One singer-actress is an old pro and the other a superb entertainer exploring a new avenue for her talent. (Note to Cher: In this instance, “old” is a good thing and a compliment. You still look fabulous.)
Another successful gamble was to make a musical, traditionally a mating ritual, into a female-centric extravaganza. The movie backgrounds its male characters as best it can — Love Interest, Best (Gay) Friend, Frantic Ex-Husband, Ravenous Real Estate Developer — so the beautiful, fabulous women are front and center.
Women will love this, and men won’t mind the eye candy either, so it looks like this Screen Gems release can’t help becoming a hit. News stories about conflicts on the set and reshoots will only fuel the curiosity factor. Besides, burlesque itself — a stage-show tradition dating to late-19th century British music halls — with its risque humor and ample flesh (without full exposure), is making a comeback. Burlesque should seal the deal.
The movie takes place in a Sunset Boulevard theater called the Burlesque Lounge that’s on its last legs, no matter how curvy and luscious those legs may be. In walks the naive heroine from Iowa, Aguilera’s Ali Rose. She’s hooked the minute she sees Cher’s Tess, the club’s co-owner and resident diva, belt out “Welcome to Burlesque,” backed by a chorus line in fishnet stockings and eye-popping bustiers.
No one will give her a job, so with the help of a handsome bartender (Cam Gigandet) — Love Interest — she creates one out of thin air. She grabs a tray and is now a cocktail waitress only one urgent plea/conniving manipulation/sensational audition away from that glorious stage.
She gets that shot, of course, and later gets to display that big Aguilera voice, which rocks the theater. A star may be born, but “nothing’s what it seems” — one of the many cliche lines that Antin’s screenplay indulges in with glee.
The Burlesque Lounge teeters on bankruptcy. Tess’ Frantic Ex-Husband (Peter Gallagher) pleads her to sell to the Real Estate Developer (Eric Dane), while her Best (Gay) Friend (Stanley Tucci) assures her that things somehow will work out. The film’s romantic melodrama centers on Ali’s tentative flirtation with the bartender. They end up circumstantial roommates in his Hollywood apartment, but he has a “fiancee” back in New York, a nightly long-distance phone call that does nothing to warm his bed.
Back at the theater, a good girl (Julianne Hough) is pregnant and a bad girl (Kristen Bell) insanely jealous of Ali’s popularity. And so the various plot lines go, serving mostly to inspire song-and-dance numbers from the female performers. Occasionally, a number takes place in the mind of its heroine. Perhaps the entire movie actually takes place there.
The songs tip their hats to various showbiz traditions. “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is a nod to ’50s showstoppers, “Wagon Wheel Watusi” leans toward ’60s pop, and “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and blues pieces add a touch of soul.
Dances choreographed by Denise Faye and Joey Pizzi aren’t conventional displays of happy feet and athletic agility. Instead, numbers are a series of poses built around a prop, like a chair. Hair flies this way, buttocks thrust that way, and arms strike out at abrupt angles. Virginia Katz’s editing is swift as Bojan Bazelli’s camera moves fluidly in front of the stage.
Antin is in his element here. His sister Robin founded mischievous burlesque troupe the Pussycat Dolls, and he has directed a couple of their videos. He clearly loves this world. The numbers would make Ziegfeld proud; they glorify the American girl with only a little PG-13 naughtiness. Antin knows what you came to see, and he delivers.
So does Aguilera. Her role is kept deliberately nondescript so she can fill it with her own personality and big voice. She does bring beguiling innocence to the part, along with a single-minded determination and a hellacious amount of performing talent.
Cher gets only one other number, “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” which might become her anthem just as “My Way” belonged to Sinatra.
Tucci has his moments as the stage manager and Tess’ right-hand man to lighten the melodrama, but the other roles tend toward blandness. The worst served is Alan Cumming. If ever a performer should have been at home in this milieu, it’s Cumming — who, after all, has done Cabaret onstage. Did his role wind up on the cutting-room floor?
Nonetheless, credit Antin with pulling the film musical back to its roots. With Moulin Rouge and Chicago, the musical was beginning to look like long-playing videos. Burlesque is a smart and sassy expedition back to MGM musicals under Arthur Freed, by way of Bob Fosse’s jazz-style song-and-dance movies. Indeed, the film musical it most closely resembles is Fosse’s Sweet Charity.
So Burlesque celebrates its talented stars and the renaissance of burlesque’s cheeky fun. The only disappointment is that no Burlesque Lounge actually exists on Sunset Boulevard. On film, it’s such a rockin’ joint.
Release date: Wednesday, Nov. 24 (Screen Gems)?
Cast: Christina Aguilera, Cher, Cam Gigandet, Peter Gallagher, Stanley Tucci, Eric Dane, Julianne Hough, Kristen Bell, Alan Cumming?
Director-screenwriter: Steve Antin?
Producer: Donald De Line ?
Rated PG-13, 119 minutes
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